Tarfia Faizullah’s first book of poetry, “Seam,” centers around a series of poems that she started writing in graduate school. This adept and moving work explores the tragedy of Bangladeshi women raped by the Pakistani Army during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. In 2008, she received Ploughshares’ Cohen Award for her poem “Interview with a Birangona.” Two years later, she received a Fulbright fellowship that allowed her travel to Bangladesh to record the testimonies of “birangonas,” or war heroines. Her work was honored yet again last year when “Seam” received the Crab Orchard Review’s First Book Award.
Many of the poems in “Seam,” which will be published in 2014 (and can be pre-ordered here), came out of those conversations she had with women during her time in Bangladesh. Faizullah discussed the collection with The Aerogram recently via email. Readers who find themselves pulled in by the contemplative intensity of her reading in the video for “Elegy with Her Red-Tipped Fingers” may wish to peruse some of the other poems by Faizullah linked at the end of the interview.
Where did you grow up? What was it like?
I grew up in Midland, a small town in west Texas. In Midland, there are many billboards condemning you to hellfire if you don’t believe in Jesus as well as the Barnes and Noble where I spent many hours poring over poetry books. There were South Asian parties where everyone wore the latest salwar kameez and saris.
There were also the afternoons after school I spent at my father’s clinic, which was sandwiched between Arby’s and KFC on the one long road that led you out of town towards old oil fields. On that same road was the office building that served as the mosque where I spent Sundays with my head covered learning to read Arabic. At the break, my friends and I would lick Southern Maid donut frosting from our fingers and giggle about boys until we were sternly chastised.
I attended Trinity, an Episcopalian private school, where I learned French and memorized William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence” and Maxwell’s equations. I attended chapel and sang hymns before going home in the evenings to pray Maghrib on a tasseled prayer mat and eat dhal and bhaat with my parents. I attended pep rallies with blue and white paint on my face. I graduated high school wearing a white sari stitched with tiny silver stars.
What prompted you to begin writing poetry?
As Stephen Dunn wrote in his poem, “A Postmortem Guide,” “I was burned by books early/and kept sidling up to the flame.”
How does music influence your writing?
I’ve written poems such as “At Zahra’s Salon for Ladies” that have been specifically influenced by a song, and I listen to a wide range of music (from Stravinsky to Kanye, and everything in between!). What I love about poetry, though, is how it makes me attentive to the natural music of language.
Have you read any Bengali, Hindi or Urdu poets and if so have they influenced your work?
I was exposed to Bengali, Hindi, and Urdu songs and poetry while I was growing up, but more recently, what has been truly influential on my work has been translating a 19th century Bengali poet. I’ve had to think about the meaning of individual words as well as the music of a language and how to preserve it, which has in turn led to me thinking more deliberately about my own poems.
Congratulations on your first book of poetry “Seam“! Please tell us about putting “Seam” together.
Thank you! “Seam” centers around a long sequence entitled “Interview with a Birangona,” which imagines the process of a Bangladeshi-American female interviewer speaking with a birangona, a Bangladeshi woman raped by Pakistani soldiers during the 1971 Liberation War. The sequence is woven with and bookended by poems interrogating the interviewer’s own heritage and personal losses.
I began writing the first of the interview poems my second year of graduate school, and put them away until two years later when I received a Fulbright to Bangladesh to interview the birangona and conduct further research on the 1971 Liberation War.
“Seam” is a book that narratively and structurally relies on distance: between two continents and cultures as well as between the year of Bangladesh’s independence and its modern moment. “1971,” for example, the first poem of the book, imagines the Bangladeshi-American interviewer imagining her mother as a young girl watching her mother bathe in a pond during the war. When I returned from Bangladesh, I had a stack of six years’ worth of poems. Only then was I able to begin the work of shaping “Seam” into a collection that tries to both enact and traverse that distance.
Some of your poems are about or addressed to South Asians that you came across in daily life, like Auntie Neelam at Zahra Salon, a Bangladeshi cab driver in San Francisco and a brown girl in your weight lifting class. What inspired you to write about these encounters?
I think we all have the experience of realizing there’s a connection between ourselves and someone else, but ignoring that connection. I’m also interested in writing poems that enact our modern moment while also reaching backwards to our complicated histories. The encounters that led to those poems reminded me of how we cannot help but be isolated inside our own experiences even as we long for connection with others.
Ultimately, I wrote those poems because I was moved: by the way Auntie Neelam tenderly stroked down my eyebrows after she finished threading them, the darkness of the cab the night the cabdriver and I could have spoken to each other in Bangla but didn’t, or the way the South Asian girl in my weightlifting class and I would eye each other but never speak.
Poetry allows me a format to think more deeply about encounters like those that I might otherwise take for granted. In that way, writing those poems helped me understand how we can be simultaneously isolated beings as well as part of a varied and intricate community.
What do you like doing when you’re not writing?
I help edit the Asian American Literary Review and Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook Press, cook meals for my friends, read comic books and trashy magazines, obsessively listen to the same song on repeat, mentor young writers, and try not to trip over invisible cracks in sidewalks.
Tarfia Faizullah is the author of “Seam” (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), winner of the 2012 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Her poems appear in Ploughshares, The Missouri Review, The Southern Review, Massachusetts Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. A Kundiman fellow, she received her MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and is the recipient of an AWP Intro Journals Project Award, a Ploughshares Cohen Award, a Fulbright Fellowship, a Copper Nickel Poetry Prize, a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, scholarships from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, and the Vermont Studio Center. The following list includes some of her poems that are published online.
- April Aubade
- Aubade Ending with the Death of a Mosquito
- Aubade: Incantation at a Closed Window
- At Zahra’s Salon for Ladies
- Colorization i-iv
- Dhaka Aubade
- Elegy with Her Red-Tipped Fingers
- Monsoon Wedding
- Ramadan Nocturne
- Reading Transtromer in Bangladesh
- Register of Eliminated Villages
- Selected Poems
- The Epidemics of Desire (Audio)
- Your Own Country